Background Information for The Longest Memory by Fred D'Aguiar Prepared by Anne Williams and John Condon, November 1999
After kidnapping potential slaves in Africa, merchants forced them to walk in slave caravans sometimes as far as 1,000 miles. Shackled and underfed, only half the people survived these death marches.
Those too sick or weary to keep up were often killed or left to die. Dr. Livingstone tells how he saw groups of dying people with slave yokes around their necks, near the road where he travelled.
Along the west coast of Africa Europeans built some sixty forts that served as trading posts. Those who reached the coastal forts were put into underground dungeons where they would stay -sometimes for as long as a year.
European sailors seeking riches brought rum, cloth, guns, and other goods to these posts and traded them for human beings.
This human cargo was transported across the Atlantic Ocean. A typical crossing took 60-90 days but some lasted up to four months.
On the ships, people were stuffed between decks. The heat was often unbearable, and the air nearly unbreathable. Women were often used sexually. Men were often chained in pairs, shackled wrist to wrist or ankle to ankle. People were crowded together, and often had to lie in each other's faeces, urine, and, in the case of dysentery, even blood
Diseases such as smallpox and yellow fever spread like wildfire. The diseased were sometimes thrown overboard to prevent wholesale epidemics.
This ship's cargo hold was empty except for twenty or so Africans whom the captain and his crew had recently robbed from a Spanish ship. The captain exchanged the Africans for food, then set sail.
The term Mason-Dixon Line was popularly used to designate the line that divided the so-called free states from the slave states. The term is still sometimes used to mean the boundary between the North and the South. Mason-Dixon Line
"All servants imported and brought into the Country...who were not Christians in their native Country...shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion...shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resist his master...correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction...the master shall be free of all punishment...as if such accident never happened." 1705 Slave Codes, the Virginia General Assembly
Slaves needed written permission to leave their plantation; slaves found guilty of murder or rape would be hanged; for robbing or any other major offence, the slave would receive sixty lashes and be placed in stocks, where his or her ears would be cut off; and for minor offences, such as associating with whites, slaves would be whipped, branded, or maimed.
Slavery became a highly profitable system for white plantation owners in the colonial South.
If slaves were accused by their masters of insubordination, or of eating more than their allotment of food, they might expect to be fitted with an iron muzzle. “I had seen a black woman slave... who was cooking the dinner, and the poor creature was cruelly loaded with various kinds of iron machines; she had one particularly on her head, which locked her mouth so fast that she could scarcely speak, and could not eat or drink.”
"If you're a white authority, you're constantly trying to figure how tightly you want to impose the lid with respect to people running away. How fierce should the punishments be? Should it be a whipping? Should it be the loss of a finger or a hand or a foot? Should it be wearing shackles perpetually?" - Peter Wood, historian
A slave owner who sought to break the most rebellious of slaves could do so, knowing any punishment he inflicted, including death, would not result in even the slightest reprimand
Carolina authorities developed laws to keep the African American population under control. Whipping, branding, dismembering, castrating, or killing a slave were legal under many circumstances. Freedom of movement, to assemble at a funeral, to earn money, even to learn to read and write, became outlawed.
BIBLIOGRAPHY Ex-slave Narratives: Africans in America American Memory All Collections Search Slavery and Sectionalism : Colonial Virginia Encarta 1999 Microsoft.